Active Hope for positive organizations

Can it get worse? Every time you watch or read the news the answer seems yes. Some people feel so discouraged that they give up contributing to solutions or trying to do their best. They quietly quit and escape from reality. The same goes for organizations. The good news is there’s an approach called Active Hope that helps people and organizations to bounce back and take action. Active Hope is a process that supports a positive organizational culture based on positive psychology.

“Active Hope – How to Face the Mess We’re in with Unexpected Resilience and Creative Power” is written by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone. The revised 2022 edition is published and inspired me. It resonates with Process Work by Arnold Mindell, Otto Scharmer’s Theory U, Charles Eisenstein’s work (the story of separation versus the story of interbeing), and with the dialogue process I use when developing an organizational culture based on World Cafe. The Active Hope process is inspired by Buddhism and system thinking and based on Macy’s practice “The Work That Reconnects”. It’s also inspired by storytelling. It is a crucial process that supports a positive organizational culture based on positive psychology. It’s relevant for all organizations and people and helps to unleash resilience, creativity, and the teamwork needed to achieve solutions and other positive goals. So, leaders, consultants, and team members consider the process of Active Hope.

Three stories – which is your favorite?

Macy and Johnstone identify three stories of our time that are active at the same time:
Business as Usual
The Great Unraveling
The Great Turning
Most of us recognize these stories – where Business as Usual represents our current industrialized, technological, consumerist society. This story hopes it won’t be as bad as the IPCC climate panel showed and that we’ll find technical solutions. The Great Unraveling is the super pessimistic story you get when everything goes wrong. Systems and societies crash and we experience scarcity, competition, and battle everywhere – the end of the world as we know it.
The Great Turning is the positive outcome of this transition period of challenges, uncertainty, and turmoil that we face. It’s the world we want to create – when we do our best.
You may recognize that you go back and forth between these stories, depending on incidents and your mood. Whichever story is active in your brain informs your decisions and actions. Sometimes we move on in Business as Usual, sometimes we’re depressed and discouraged seeing everything unravel, sometimes we believe that most people are good and we’ll turn just in time…

Whatever you tell yourself, the fact is that our current era is unique and challenging. As Macy and Johnstone write: Climate change isn’t the only problem we face. Human population and consumption are increasing at the same time as essential resources, such as freshwater, fish stocks, and topsoil, are in decline. Extreme inequality is on the rise, with more and richer billionaires accumulating wealth in a world where hundreds of millions of people still starve. While the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has left many feeling desperate about how they’re going to manage, $2 trillion is spent globally each year on preparing for and engaging in warfare (…) We may wonder whether our families, our civilization, and even our species will make it. Yet because fears for our collective future are usually considered too uncomfortable to talk about, they tend to remain an unspoken presence at the back of our minds. While it’s so important to do something about our collective global situation.

What is Active Hope?

Passive hope is about waiting for external agencies to bring about what we desire. Active Hope is about becoming active participants in the process of moving toward our hopes and, where we can, realizing them. Active Hope is a practice like tai chi or gardening, it is something we do rather than have. The process involves a couple of phases.

Gratitude and pain

First, we start from where we are by taking in a clear view of reality, acknowledging what we see and how we feel. This phase has two steps. Coming from gratitude: our current blessings make us feel great – as a ton of research shows. In a way, gratitude builds trust and generosity and helps people against consumerism as it is based on what you have, not on what you’re missing.
The second step is Honoring our pain for the world. Just like in positive cultures where you don’t fake a good mood when you feel bad, you’re authentic. Most people feel pain when they truly understand the state the world is in, the multiple crises, and the interconnected challenges on environmental, social, governance, and justice issues (ESG). This stage is looking at the monster under your bed. Let’s not deny or escape, but face it and then, accept it, fight it, and let it go – whatever works for you.

Seeing with new eyes

Next, we identify what we hope for in terms of the direction we’d like things to move in or the values we’d like to see expressed. How can we contribute to The Great Turning? This phase is called Seeing with New Eyes and involves four discoveries: a wider sense of self, a different kind of power, a richer experience of community, and a larger view of time.
For each of the discoveries, Macy and Johnstone share great exercises. Many exercises work with finishing open sentences – this is a dialogic change approach that is proven to work!

Going forth

In the last phase, we take steps to move ourselves or our situation in that direction: it is called Going Forth. Again, the authors offer a ton of exercises and practices to find your or your team’s next step. They write: When we see with new eyes, we recognize how every action has significance, how the bigger story of the Great Turning is made up of countless smaller stories of communities, campaigns, and personal actions. We don’t know whether these changes will happen fast enough to prevent a catastrophic collapse, but given the unpredictable nature of discontinuous change, they just might. This is not the same as being confident, but it does involve being open to the possibility of success.

> If you were free from fear and doubt, what would you choose to do for the Great Turning?

Macy and Johnstone show how to keep motivation and momentum, how to avoid burnout, and how to use the insights of positive psychology, system theory and Buddhism to contribute to the transition: an exciting change. It resonates very much with personal and organization development – as opposed to change management where you plan everything in advance. It’s just like organizational culture development that’s always unpredictable with side-effects emerging and unexpected insights….

Macy and Johnstone write: What helps us face the mess we’re in and respond with Active Hope? The story of the Great Turning includes a vital ingredient that is game-changing. It is the unexpected resilience and creative power of life itself.

The process of turning toward our hopes, and turning away from behaviors that make our fears more likely is something we can do from any starting point. We live at a time when the stakes are so high, when so much rests on what we do, that, as Greta Thunberg said, “It’s never too late to do as much as we can.”

A central question is “What happens through you?” Which story will happen through you? If you hope for the Great Turning, the practice of Active Hope involves taking steps that help bring it into being. That includes planting seeds that might sprout into future possibilities, as well as nurturing, developing, and supporting expressions of a life-sustaining culture already here.

Seven sentence starters

When you look at the image you see the Active Hope process simplified in one exercise you can do for yourself, or in pairs in your team. It’s an empowering exercise to answer these questions (just 2 minutes per question, take turns):
I love…
I’d like to thank…
Looking at the future we’re heading into, my concerns include…
Facing these concerns, what inspires me is…
Looking at the future we’re heading into, what I deeply hope for is…
A part I’d like to play to support this is….
A step I’ll take in the next week is…

Addressing our fears and hopes together in a positive, actionable way is great team building! However, please check if your team has enough social safety (and time and energy). Ask who’s open to do this exercise and work with those people who are willing. This personal development work should always be voluntary.
You can also read this blog article on safety, based on Amy Edmondson’s work.

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